- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The president’s new approach to Iraq has encouraged a spate of articles and comments about the Vietnam War, held up as a cautionary example of how we could go wrong in Iraq. None, however, described the blunders and misperceptions that really led to defeat in South Vietnam.

I was continuously involved with Vietnam, from November 1965 to January 1976, from the rice paddies to the White House. In the final period, as head of the Indochina Staff of the White House National Security Staff, I was probably the most senior U.S. official solely involved with Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). This vantage point has afforded me a take on Vietnam different from most.

When we encouraged a generals’ coup that resulted in the Nov. 1, 1963, ouster and unexpected assassination of the autocratic South Vietnam leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, who though unpopular with the American media, had unified and stabilized the country, we destabilized Vietnam, which then became our responsibility and our war.

Late 1967 official optimism was followed by the enormous shock of the Jan. 30, 1968, communist “Tet Offensive” where Viet Cong forces seemed to have conquered the whole country. This engendered in many Americans a permanent conviction: “the war was unwinnable.” The media neglected to inform Americans that this offensive ended in a calamitous Viet Cong defeat from which it never recovered. This permitted pacification to progress to the point, in 1971, where President Nguyen Van Thieu had carried out one of the largest and most successful land reforms in history, also ignored by U.S. media.

President Nixon’s 1971 Vietnamization program resulted in a complete withdrawal of U.S. ground forces by 1972. Testing Vietnamization, Hanoi launched its full-scale 1972 “Easter Offensive” with the equivalent of 23 divisions equipped with hundreds of Soviet-supplied T-54 tanks, large rockets, long-range artillery, surface-to-air missiles and other modern weapons. South Vietnamese ground forces, Army and Marines, with highly effective U.S. air, naval and logistics support, stopped the offensive and eventually launched counteroffensives.

On Sept. 15 1972, South Vietnamese Marines retook Quang Tri, less than 20 miles from North Vietnam and by far the strongest communist position in the South. If the enemy could not hold Quang Tri, how could hold anything else in the South? This, however, we fecklessly ignored. Hanoi’s offensive had cost an estimated 100,000 killed. After the 1975 communist victory, a former top commander in the South, Gen. Tran Van Tra, revealed that the offensive left his troops on the verge of defeat.

Facing defeat, Hanoi enticed Henry Kissinger into resuming peace negotiations. Noteworthy is that Mr. Kissinger’s negotiations aide, John Negroponte, vigorously and courageously but futilely argued against provisions leaving North Vietnamese forces in the South. With the best intentions, Mr. Kissinger contributed to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The North Vietnamese side leaked that a negotiated peace was near. This was confirmed by Mr. Kissinger (later much to his regret). Once Congress heard this, interest in continuing the war rapidly waned. However, since South Vietnamese forces were on a roll, Mr. Thieu understandably wanted to continue fighting until the North Vietnamese troops were expelled, not negotiate a cease-fire in-place. Recalcitrant Mr. Thieu had to be bludgeoned into line with threats.

Hanoi’s representatives believing it now had the upper hand, began to renege and broke off talks. It took the December bombing campaign to bring them back to the table. The “Paris Peace Accords,” signed on Jan. 27, 1973, were immediately and massively violated by Hanoi’s forces. To end this serious threat, we met with the North Vietnamese outside Paris. When Mr. Kissinger threatened to resume hostilities if the violations continued, the Hanoi delegation laughed as its head observed that Mr. Kissinger apparently was unaware of the June 4, 1973, Case-Church amendment that would cut off all funding for U.S. military operations in Indochina. At that point, I knew that all was lost, because, without the threat of U.S. retaliation, Hanoi had zero interest in adhering to the Accords.

In addition, a Democratic-led Congress, with significant Republican support, reduced military aid to South Vietnam from $2.270 billion in fiscal 1973 to $700 million for fiscal 1975. This had a devastating effect on the morale and combat effectiveness of South Vietnamese forces, which substantially contributed to their defeat, in April 1975, by North Vietnamese forces well supported by their loyal allies, China and the Soviet Union. With our troops and prisoners of war returned, Congress was ready to write off, and thus betray, our nearly victorious Vietnamese allies.

William L. Stearman is a former counselor in the U.S. Foreign Service, serving 1965-1967 in Vietnam. He was a member of the White House National Security Council Staff, 1971-76, and 1981-1993. He also was an adjunct professor of international affairs, Georgetown University, 1977-1993.

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